War and Pax

Claude Rawson

  • War Music. An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ by Christopher Logue
    Cape, 83 pp, £3.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 224 01534 6
  • Ode to the Dodo. Poems from 1953 to 1978 by Christopher Logue
    Cape, 176 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 224 01892 2
  • Under the North Star by Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin
    Faber, 47 pp, £5.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 571 11721 X
  • Ted Hughes: The Unaccommodated Universe by Ekbert Faas
    Black Swallow Press, 229 pp, June 1983, ISBN 0 87685 459 5
  • Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes by Stuart Hirschberg
    Wolfhound, 239 pp, £8.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 905473 50 7
  • Ted Hughes: A Critical Study by Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts
    Faber, 288 pp, £9.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 571 11701 5

Christopher Logue’s War Music is not ‘a translation in the accepted sense’. It’s not clear why, having said this, he should invoke Johnson’s remark that a translation’s merit should be judged by ‘its effect as an English poem’, since Johnson was talking about translations, whereas Logue’s poem is a variety of ‘poetical imitation’ and belongs to a perfectly good tradition of English poems based on or played off against an older (often Classical) original. A modern model might be Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, which it resembles in its style of selective ironic commentary and in some Poundian mannerisms, as in the jeering lyricism of the scene where Thetis calls together her sister Nereids, ‘kith of King Nayruce’ (Nereus).

War Music is an abridged and telescoped version of Iliad, 16-19, the first major block of a larger substructure which runs from Book 16 to the end at 24, and which deals with the linked episodes of the slaying of Patroclus by Hector and (outside Logue’s version) of Hector by Achilles. Major themes of mourning and revenge, and a preoccupation with the proper disposal of the slain hero’s body and armour, give this final portion of the Iliad a particularly powerful and haunting cohesion. The poem here raises especially acutely the question of Homer’s attitude to heroic violence, the elusive blend of admiration for the ferocity of warriors and of recoil from the more blood-curdling things: acts or threats of decapitation, dismemberment, even cannibalism.

The exact proportions of the blending are open to dispute, though few read Homer’s poem as an unadulterated onslaught on war or the heroic ethos. Logue’s imitation comes close to being that. It is naggingly satirical, like an Iliad rewritten by Thersites. Logue begins with the Trojans in the ascendant, with both Zeus (angered and sorrowing over the death of Sarpedon) and Apollo on their side and Patroclus vanquished at the climax. The gods’ favour to the Trojans is highlighted, indeed crowed over:

You overreached yourself, Patroclus.
  Yes, my darling,
Not only God was out that day but Lord Apollo.
You know Apollo loves the Trojans ... ’

The point is emphasised on the next page with enlarged typography and later by a double page with APOLLO’S name Pounding across it in huge block capitals, like Chinese characters in The Cantos.

The divine partisanship, gloating and gloated over, also involves Zeus, whom Logue calls God. Achille’s prayer to Zeus to let Patroclus win fights and return safely is rendered as a sarcastic parody of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Homeric routine in which a god grants half the suppliant’s prayer becomes a vindictive equivocation:

God heard his prayer and granted half of it.
Patroclus would rout the Trojans; yes;
But not a word was said about his safe return.
No, my Achilles, God promised nothing of the kind ...

Such divine partisanships, not in themselves out of the ordinary or especially reprehensible in Homer, are turned into disreputable cases of influence in high places, and Logue’s Christianising adds suggestions of a military-religious cabal against which no soldier stands a chance. He later introduces Zeus and Hera with the words ‘God and His wife (who is His sister, too)’. Homer’s passing appositional reference to a well-known fact about the Olympian family becomes a leering disclosure of perverse doings among the great, a sort of sexual Nectargate.

Such transformations are in principle a legitimate feature of ‘poetical imitation’. Ironic misapplications of a noble original to modern reality have always been one of the rich resources of the genre, as have secondary suggestions that the revered ancients may after all have been as ignoble as their modern avatars. What grates in Logue’s version is the nervous overemphasis. Something is being proved by overkill and the fact diverts attention from the poem, old or new, to the jumpy performing tricks of the poet. The real failure is not in the fidelity of War Music to Homer but precisely in ‘its effect as an English poem’.

A recurrent illustration is provided by Logue’s handling of Homeric similes, which he announces his intention of replacing ‘with local counterparts’ (whatever that may mean). Homer says Achilles’s Myrmidons are like ravening wolves, who eat flesh raw and tear a stag to pieces. Logue translates:

Imagine wolves: an hour ago the pack
Hustled a stag, then tore it into shreds.
And now that they have gorged upon its haunch
They need a drink to wash their curry down.

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